Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fresh Air and Fiery Chili in Portsmouth

I think most people in NYC can understand the need to get out of the city and breathe sometimes. For Rob and I, that place of refuge is Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It's the perfect New England port town with eclectic shopping, cozy coffeeshops and, of course, great food. We probably pay our sanctuary a visit about once every eight weeks or so. I can't think of many places I'd rather be.

We almost always start our day off at Colbys. This cozy little establishment has a fireplace, warm red walls and local art hanging on the walls. We partially come here because there aren't many other breakfast choices in the area -- the Friendly Toast always has a wait and isn't even very good, and while Popovers has puffed pastry the size of your head, they don't offer table service, or much beyond your standard bakery fare for that matter. Colby's it is, then.

But aside from the lack of choices in the area, Colby's has something very special to offer -- Lobster Benedict. It's on the specials list about 80% of the time, so there's always the fun anticipation of waiting to see whether or not it will be a lobster benny morning. They give you tons of lobster meat and top it off with lots of hollandaise, and for $12.99 a plate I can tell you that you'll pay a lot more for a lot less in Brooklyn.

105 Daniel St.
Portsmouth, NH 03801

Our most recent visit was a perfect fall day, with the sun shining, a tiny chill in the air, and beautiful folliage abound. And because Porstmouth is a real-life Pleasantville, that Saturday just happened to be Portsmouth's Chili Fest day.

The chili here came in all shapes and sizes. Some were beef-based, some were chicken-based, some were made from pork, one was even made from steak (and, it should be said, not that good). They came with beans and without, with or without scallions, any variety of salsa, with or without cheese. Some had onions. Some had stations where you can add cheese or sour cream til your heart's content. Some were served with tortilla chips. One even had a zinfandel reduction sauce (it was actually served on the steak chili and again, not recommended). The chilis here saw no limits. My favorite was a simple ground beef chili, with beans and a lot of chili powder, that left me breathing fire. Oh, you wanted a water? You'll have to wait in that gigantic line over there to buy a ticket for $2. Well, everything has its price I guess.

On the plus side, we did meet some pretty nifty new friends.

There is so much more to say about Portsmouth's dining scene. Espresso-coated filet mignons at the Green Monkey, lobster rolls at Lobster in the Rough, pizza at the Flatbread Company, crab cakes at Cafe Mirabel, fresh flounder at Jumpin' Jay's. I'll have to save those for future Portsmouth installments. Or maybe you'd like to join us for our next getaway?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sandwich Obsession Deconstructed: Marlow & Sons (& Daughters)

My sandwich kick went strong for awhile, and now here I am at what I consider stage 2 of sandwichiritis: the deconstruction. Cured meats and cheeses are now best enjoyed separately, so as to enjoy the subtle differences that come with preparing the same foods in different ways. And restaurants always throw in some chewy bread, so you still get the sandwichy effect. It's a happy disease.

A few weekends ago Rob and I finally went to Marlowe & Sons in Williamsburg. It's gotten so much hype but I never really felt like going. Their specialties of charcuterie, oysters and soup just seemed like a boring way to spend the evening. I was so, so wrong and I'm glad. It was one of the most memorable meals Rob and I have had in a long time.

We went on a Saturday night and they don't take reservations, so we had to wait at the crowded bar for quite awhile. It was annoying being right in the servers' way but as soon as we got a stool at the bar, we were treated well during our wait. They asked if we wanted to start with any appetizers on the house, so we went with the olives. Two minutes later we were presented with a huge bowl of all sorts of shiny and briny olives in all shades and shapes. They were some of the meatiest olives I've ever had. In a good way. The perfect accompanyment to our 1/3 bottle of wine.

After waiting a little over an hour we get a seat, and luckily its towards the back of the room. Lots of people are sitting about four feet away from the bar. There's not a whole lot of room for personal space here.

Marlow & Sons switches up their menu every day based on what's fresh in their kitchen that day. I think there are a few constants, like the brick chicken. We decided against the idea of getting any of the three entrees and went for a little bit of everything else. First, a meat plate and two kinds of cheeses. The memorable cheese was a Point Reyes from California. We savored this stuff like it was the last thing we were ever going to eat. It was a little smokey with a familiar aftertaste that neither of us could identify. We would alternate taking bites, trying to nail down what it reminded us of. We couldn't come up with anything. The other cheese was good but not nearly as mystifying, so I guess it lost out on the allure of its brother cheese.

The meat plate was made up of five kinds of cured porky wonder: toscano, soppressata, finnochiona, nostrano and prosciutto. Finnochiona is a salami with fennel, or finnochio (one of the few Italian words I actually know and use!) Each and every type of meat blew me away with its lush spices and meltiness.

To finish our deconstructed sandwich, we ordered the crostini of the day. On this particular day the crostini was topped with housemade butter, goat cheese and Concord grape compote. Before we tried it, we were thinking "Bread and butter with a little cheese and a little jelly, sounds kind of boring and maybe a little weird." The crostini was neither of these things by a long shot. After one bite, both of our eyes shot up. First the warm, sweet housemade butter runs down your throat. Then the strong, acidic taste of the supergrape fills your mouth. You crunch on the grape seeds while the taste of the goat cheese comes through, a bit overpowered but still present. It was truly amazing. The idea that these simple ingredients can form into something so powerful was nothing less than inspiring. I almost cried a little.

But we're not done yet. We had read pretty stellar reviews of the Parmesan soup, another constant on the menu. We were expecting a rich, cream-based soup, but it was actually cloudy broth with housemade croutons and greens, though I don't remember what those greens were. The soup wasn't much to look at but it was light, salty, cheesy, buttery. Score.

And since we were there, we might as well try their oysters. We tried one kind from New York and another from North Carolina. I've never been too fond of oysters but this place has converted me into a full-on oyster believer. The New York oyster was a bit overpowering in its briny punch but I found the North Carolina ones to be just right.

At this point we were both too full for dessert. But this didn't stop us from getting the chocolate tart with sea salt and caramel to go. I think it may have lost something in the way of texture (and temperature) after a day in the fridge, but the flavors were still there. They definitely did not skimp on the sea salt, making for a sharp contrast with the rich chocolate and smooth caramel. Even non-sweet toothed Rob enjoyed this one. Well, at least the bites that I let him have.

I can't wait to go back so I can try the pork belly, the brick chicken, the fried corn and chicken liver pate. That is, on top of everything else that we have already tried.

Until our next visit, there is always Marlow & Daughters, the small grocery store/butcher next door. Like Marlow & Sons, the prices are a little steep at the store devoted to the female of the Marlow offspring, but I bet it's worth it.

Marlow & Sons
81 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 384-1441

Marlow & Daughters
95 Broadway (between Bedford Ave & Berry St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 388-5700